< December 07, 2008 >

Commentary on Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

 

The psalm assigned for last week (Advent 1) included a thrice-repeated refrain that included the petition, "Restore us, O God" (80:3, 7, 19).

This week's psalm expands on the motif of restoration. In v. 1, the psalm recalls that God had "restored the fortunes of Jacob" in the past. In v. 4 it renews the plea, "Restore us again, O God of our salvation." The epithet given to God is especially telling: "God of our salvation." Philip Melancthon famously taught that to know Christ is to know Christ's benefits, rather than his natures. That is, true knowledge of God is more than the granting of intellectual assent to ideas about God. True knowledge also includes having one's being grasped by God's promises and knowing that one's life flows from God's blessings. Psalm 85 and Melancthon sing in the same choir. For Psalm 85, to know God is to experience God's saving acts, to know that we are caught up in the melody of God's saving acts, and to know that the Lord is the "God of our salvation."

Scholars differ in how they understand the overall movement or argument of this prayer for help. The interpretation presented here understands the psalm as unfolding in four movements or stanzas:

  • The community thanks God for past deliverance (vv. 1-3)
  • The community calls for renewed deliverance (vv. 4-7)
  • The community prays for God's word to be revealed (vv. 8-9)
  • The community receives the promise of God's deliverance (vv. 10-13)

The psalm, then, is understood as a liturgy in which the community prays for God's intervention and receives that promise from God.

As in most psalms, the type of "restoration" that the original pray-ers of this psalm hoped for has been obscured by the passage of time. Perhaps they hoped for return from exile (vv. 1b, 4-6). Perhaps they sought forgiveness for some national sin (v. 2). Perhaps a prophet had announced some national sin that they people had committed that this psalm was a prayer seeking forgiveness (vv. 7, 9). Perhaps the land was enduring a famine and hoped for a bountiful harvest (v. 12). The obscurity of the psalm on this point is actually a blessing, since it allows communities suffering from any manner of crises to pray this prayer.

There are two main theological themes woven into the psalm. On the one hand, there is the theme of our ongoing need for God's intervention (vv. 4-8). We do not receive God just once--whether at baptism or at some conversion experience--we receive God again and again. We receive blessing, forgiveness, guidance, instruction, and Son--and we receive all of these throughout our lives. The purpose of remembering what God has done in the past--of knowing both God's actions of "law" and of "gospel"--is to know what God can and will do again.

On the other hand, the psalm also develops the theme of God's restoring acts--"Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice with you?" (v. 6; or, perhaps, the verse should be translated, "so that your people may rejoice in you.") The psalm bears witness to the faith that God has acted in the past (vv. 1-3), but even more, it bears witness to the confession that God is present now and able to act now. It promises that the one who established a covenant with Israel will remain faithful in the future and will continue to deliver Israel (vv. 10-13).

The transition between the psalm's third (vv. 8-9) and fourth (vv. 10-13) sections has been the cause of some debate. Some think of vv. 10-13 as an oracle delivered by a priest in response to a request to "hear what God the Lord will speak" (v. 8). If so, then the end of the psalm is a new development--in theory, the priest might have delivered a negative or condemning word for God, and thus the psalm could have ended a different way. Another view sees the psalm as a fixed liturgy, as the words "for he will speak peace to his people" suggest. No matter which historical reconstruction one follows, the theological point is the content of the promises with which the psalm ends.

In the psalm's closing verses, God's attributes of steadfast love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace are anthropomorphized as tangible forces that act at God's behest and on the people's behalf. The poem portrays these rather abstract qualities of God as concrete realities that embody "God's benefits" for the people. Steadfast love and faithfulness meet. Righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs up from the ground like the first flower of spring. Righteousness looks down like the sun from the heavens. The psalm poetically promises that these abstract qualities of the Creator are, in fact, as real as the more obviously tangible material creations that surround us. Within creation, God's love is really present and incarnate for us in God's faithfulness, steadfast love, righteousness, and peace.

Where are these qualities more present and incarnate, than in the one who was born of a virgin in Bethlehem's stall?